I’ll start with my own history of legal health, because we didn’t make this up just to promote a hashtag, although, for sure, go promote the hashtag 😉 But read this first so you know why.
I’m a fourth generation lawyer, and the third generation to focus on civil rights. Both of my parents, two brothers, and one sister: all lawyers. You don’t grow up like this without learning, from a young age, to see the world like a lawyer. And here’s the thing about seeing the world like a lawyer: once you see the gears, you can’t unsee them. Laws exist to provide rights and protections. Once you understand the gears of this machine, you see it in every single action, interaction, and transaction in the modern world. Especially as things get more digital.
I’ve also been a programmer and an entrepreneur my entire life, as Reid Hoffman would say, “jumping off of a cliff and building my plane on the way down.” Thinking like a lawyer has given me an edge, but maybe not the one you’d think. It wasn’t about not needing to hire a lawyer, although that was nice. It was about never needing to worry. Because I saw the gears, I could take risks. As a business owner I had the fallback of understanding the legal system, and what my worst case scenario would be. I knew that, worst case, I would have my day in court, and I would have the tools to take action. I felt protected by the law, not fearful of screwing up, or of the law screwing me.
I was also constantly aware that my peers did not have this feeling, which in turn caused me to recognize it in myself. This feeling of empowerment and protection is to be legally healthy, and legal “health” is the right way to talk about this on many levels.
In the legal world we talk a lot about “access to justice” and various forms of “aid” through non-profits. These things are important, but legal health is something different. Legal health is proactive. Yes, people need a system that works, and they need help navigating that system. But, that feeling I described earlier doesn’t come from those things. It comes from understanding those things, and doing it before you need them. Above and beyond, it’s about understanding the rights you have either way, because they are written down in laws.
So, the problem is much broader than setting up a digital backbone for the existing system, or getting people cheaper help. The numbers on efforts so far show this. We can never tackle access to justice without a new way to talk about how people interact with the law. This is legal health. It’s about making it as easy as possible to know your rights, take action when necessary, and know you have the support of the law.
Legal health is truly empowering. There is a peace of mind that comes with knowing your rights, and feeling protected by the law. In my case it let me take bigger risks as a founder. Understanding your rights and knowing how to take action has downstream impact on financial health, mental health, and even medical health (if we consider the medical debt situation in the United States.) Btw, we’ve got a VLA for that.
At Juris we set out two years ago to “make the world more fair,” and we started by taking a hard look at the existing system. We dissected the access to justice solutions and conversations, and we talked to lawyers and counselors trying to help through non-profits. We realized that “access to justice” wasn’t simply about improving the existing system, it was about rethinking what exists a layer outside the system. This is how we got to “first aid.”
Health is proactive, but it is also reactive. We want to stay healthy, but sometimes we need tools to heal. If you get a small cut on your finger you don’t go to a doctor or the emergency room right away. You start smaller. Visit a pharmacy, get a band-aid, maybe grab any one of a number of brand name painkillers to bring the swelling down. At Juris we realized that this is the place to start if we want to have an impact. We call what we’ve been building “over the counter” legal services. They’re the Band-Aids and Tylenol of our system. People will always need to patch things up.
But first aid is about more than stuff you get at the pharmacy. First aid is also about knowing what to do. It’s about promoting the idea that anyone can learn a thing or two to catch problems before they start, or before they escalate, just in case. Remembering to wash your hands, having some emergency supplies around, putting a few hours into a Red Cross class, or just knowing you can take an aspirin all count. First aid is about knowing and understanding, just like the feeling of legal health I mentioned before. And anything that is about understanding will require teachers.
We’ve been excited during this time to see other leaders, and teachers in their own right, such as Richard Susskind emerge with a similar message: we need tools, but we also need people.
Tools and People.
Juris is building what we call Virtual Legal Assistants or VLAs: digital systems, able to interact with a user, take the details of their case, and respond with advice or proactive next steps. Per our mission, we’re building them with maximum access in mind, and legal health at the core. These are the tools. They give people the means to take action when need be, and the confidence that they can handle it.
Through digitization, automation, and A.I. we are able to bring the price of legal services that used to cost thousands of dollars down to double or even single digit flat fees. We’ve built things like DepositLetter, which lets a user start with a few questions, answered online, and ends with a tracked letter automatically mailed to the user’s former landlord demanding their illegally withheld deposit back. At each step Juris works as hard to provide the right legal course of action as we do to explain to the user why, answer common questions, and provide updates as quickly as possible.
Still, we’re talking about people, having disputes with other people. This is a fundamentally human problem. There is no fully automated future here. (Although, we should probably do online courses so they can spread.) The first part, the DepositLetters, that’s just antibiotics. Helping the user heal. The second part is legal health, equipping users with the understanding for next time, because there will be a next time.
Juris is committed to legal health as we build the band-aids, but we are also aware that the problem is too big. We can never get the band-aids to people without the broader conversation about legal health, on all levels. The whole community needs to spread the word. Which is why we’re starting with #legalhealth.
Our idea has always been that legal services should be as accessible and usable as the web itself, open to anyone with an Internet connection. When it comes to ways to talk to one another, Twitter has already pulled off open and accessible, so we think it’s a good place to start talking. Facebook, Instagram, anywhere you can catch a hashtag, that’ll work too. Look for #legalhealth, and jump in with your questions, considerations, dank memes, gifs, jifs, Geoffs, whatever.